Something Crazy Happened To Men 7,000 Years Ago - And Now We May Know Why

Could warfare and social structure be the answer? vchal/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 30 May 2018, 17:23

Starting 7,000 years ago, and lasting until 5,000 years ago, there was a collapse in the genetic diversity of men. As recounted by a new Nature Communications study, the diversity of their Y chromosomes collapsed somewhat, to the point wherein it was as if there was only one man left for every 17 women in much of the Old World.

The question, of course, is what caused this event to take place? According to the researchers from Stanford, generations of warfare between patrilineal clans – those defined and controlled by men and their ancestors and descendants – are to blame.

The idea of this 7,000-year-old genetic collapse in men isn’t new: Analyzing the male-inherited Y chromosome present in contemporary humans gives researchers a good indication as to how many reproducing males there were back in days long lost – and it’s come up in plenty of studies. They’ve tended to come to different conclusions, though.

The 2015 paper describing the phenomenon for the first time, for example, noted that the global (but non-uniform) collapse occurred when there was a major shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to sedentary agricultural lifestyle. One hypothesis was that, when agricultural societies permitted the emergences of social hierarchies, fewer men of higher status had control over the population’s reproductive success, which led to a collapse in genetic diversity.

This doesn't necessarily mean the total male population decreased, mind you; the number of men reproducing dropping would have the same effect on the genetic diversity of the Y chromosome.

Inspired by speculative blog posts, the Stanford team decided to re-open the cold case and try a different approach. Using mathematical models and computer simulations, they sent those hypothesized patrilineal clans to war over survival-dependent resources. The team tracked the state of the Y chromosome throughout the entire population.

These clans already had their own very low level of Y chromosome diversity by their nature, but as it turns out, wars between these clans took the Y chromosome diversity down considerably overall too. Conflicts between non-patrilineal clans, in which women and men could move to and fro whenever they wished, did not produce the same effect.

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